Feb 06, 2023

The Supreme Court in 'Terra Cognita'

Febuary 4, 2023


LAST Friday, Dean Perry Pe invited me to dinner at Raffles Hotel which I gladly accepted because the guest speaker was Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo, a man of humble beginnings who worked hard to pay for his own education. The event was organized by Tony Lopez and the Manila Overseas Press Club.

In his speech, Chief Justice Gesmundo presented to lawyers, business organizations and the media, the Supreme Court's Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovation (SPJI) which was adopted in an en banc session last October 2022. This is actually a reform program of the Supreme Court covering the period 2022-2027. He dutifully gave credit to the contributions of other chief justices who came before him, as well as to the members of the current Supreme Court for the formulation of the SPJI.

The action plan of the SPJI has guiding principles: The delivery of justice should be timely and fair. It should also be transparent and accountable, equal and inclusive, and technology adaptive. In line with the program, last Jan. 26, 2023, the Supreme Court launched the Digitized Benchbook for Philippine Trial Courts. A benchbook, as its name suggests, is a book used by judges as a resource material to access updated pertinent laws, treaties, rules, regulations and jurisprudence, and the latest issuances of the Supreme Court.

The court has also decided to allow the conduct of all trials through videoconferencing even after this ungodly epidemic. Now judges and lawyers could catch lying witnesses on slow motion and on instant replay. Because of the pandemic, the bar exams are now taken by digitized format. It will continue, said the chief justice, and now examinees need not wait and pray for months on end for the bar examination results.

In line with its reform program, the Supreme Court held an "Ethics Caravan," the last leg of which ended on Jan. 27, 2023. The purpose of the caravan was to seek information and conduct consultations about the Supreme Court's Proposed Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability. If adopted in whole or in part, the proposed code shall replace the 34-year-old Code of Professional Responsibility which serves as a written mandate on how lawyers should behave.

The court will also review and update the Code of Judicial Conduct. Recently, according to the chief justice, they revised Rule 140 of the Rules of Court which involves disciplinary measures for members, officials, employees and personnel of the judiciary. The Supreme Court is determined to crack the proverbial whip from both ends.

I have gone through the changes indicated in the Proposed Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability and there are many. Lawyers should read it thoroughly. The sub-judice rule has become stricter in its observance. A lawyer must respect data privacy laws. A lawyer must not discuss a client's confidences even with family members. Lawyers in the academe are enjoined to observe propriety inside and outside the classroom. All lawyers must ensure that their online posts uphold the dignity of the profession at all times.

In line with the Supreme Court's blitzkrieg campaign to feel the people's pulse on certain sensitive issues, a national summit on Sharia Law will be held in March of this year where issues and concerns will be discussed and addressed for the purpose of strengthening the Sharia justice system.

Personally, I think the most important item in the action blueprint of the Supreme Court is the issue of transparency. The proceedings of courts have always been veiled in mystery. Justice has always been meted out by black-robed men with stern faces. Courts have always been viewed as instruments of the State and not of the people. In fact, historians Jose Victor Torres and Carlos Madrid said that records exist in the archives of the Spanish colonial period which say that court hearings of the Royal Audiencia (the Spanish colonial Supreme Court) were sometimes held at the Palace of the Governor-General. I guess it would have been more foreboding if the court hearings were conducted at the actual premises of the Audiencia located between Fort Santiago and the Governor's Palace where the Intramuros Fire Station now stands.

Slowly, the high court is removing its shroud of secrecy. Oral arguments are now on YouTube; the Supreme Court Public Information Office uses Twitter, and decisions of the court may now be viewed online. Consultations on matters of public interest have become the rule, and the Supreme Court website gives information on what the Supreme Court is doing almost on a day-to-day basis. Just access the Supreme Court website and you will know what I mean. Consequently, the court is now on terra cognita — known and discernible territory.

Hydrographers are scientists who make maps of the unseen depth of the oceans; they chart underwater rocks, elevations, reefs, currents and undiscovered shipwrecks. They show the hazards of navigation so that people would know what lies beneath the waters. They make the invisible, visible for all of us to see.

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